Explanations for Evil, Part II

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This is the the thirtieth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I began responding to the first two of five questions about particular kinds of evil or ways of evil that come up in the evidential problem of evil. This post contains the main responses to the third and fourth questions.

C. Even if God would not restore things immediately, wouldn’t a good God prevent innocent beings from experiencing the consequences of that evil?

Similar things can be said here as with the previous question. The only way to prevent the consequences of evil completely is to prevent the innocent people from even discovering what happened. But that would mean no one would know when anyone else does anything wrong unless they deserve the negative consequences. In effect, this would be a virtual reality for each person in which no one else ever experiences the effects of their actions, but the person doing the evil action experiences things as if the other people did. There are three reasons why we should not expect a good God to do this.

1. As with question B in the last post, this case seems to involve deception. The truth is hidden from people in a way that many people would expect a good God not to do.

2. It also seems to violate freedom. If I want to insult someone, I want to insult that person and not some virtual reality of that person. I want the person to feel the effects of my insult. I’m not really able to insult the person if I’m not really interacting with the person but just some fake image of the person in my mind. It’s not my real choice to insult a non-person. So God would be violating our freedom by doing such things. (Side note: here it's not just libertarian freedom that is violated. This violates even compatibilist freedom.)

3. Real relationships are true goods in the world, and we would have none if this scenario were true. Why would a good God do such a thing? Aren’t real relationships important enough that God would want us to have them? Many people think real relationships are even one of the main purposes God had for creating beings like us to begin with.

D. Even if God would not prevent the consequences or restore things immediately, why does it have to go on this long, and why does it have to be as bad as it is and as widespread as it is? Wouldn’t a good God want to minimize the effects of evil?

Punishment: One line of thought that has not come up yet is the idea that we might deserve some or perhaps even all of the suffering that happens. If that is so, then God might have good reason to allow it to happen. If we deserve it, then God is being merciful when we do not face evil. Some people find this to be obvious, and others cannot see much motivation behind it at all, so it is worth looking more fully at the reasoning.

According to some theists (this is not universally held but is common enough to mention), no one is truly innocent. We are all fallen beings. Some call this sin. Others might just see it as a kind of imperfection that we’re still morally responsible for, even if they don’t like to call it sin. The point is that we do bad things.

We sometimes talk about deserving things based on our actions or character. If someone you trust violates your trust and then expects you to help them out, you might say they don’t deserve your help. If all the members of a group do their share on a group assignment except one person, you might then say the one who didn’t help doesn’t deserve the grade but deserves to fail. So this is a concept we all have, but some theists want to get some mileage out of it in the problem of evil by saying that we have all committed a serious enough offense against a perfect God by not holding ourselves up to standards of perfection that a perfect God has. If that is so, then we deserve the effects of evil, since we have all brought them on.

A number of philosophers today want to resist this line of thought. One reason is that sometimes what happens to us is not a result of particular choices we made but might come from choices other people made. That may be so, but all have taken part in the rejection of God’s perfect standards, and it is the result of such a rejection that evil comes. Some therefore want to maintain this view, saying that we might be innocent with respect to someone else’s evil choice (even if we're not innocent in any absolute sense), but we still might deserve what happens to us.

Those who accept this line of argument tend to have a lower view of human nature in the sense of considering humans to be fallen in a pretty severe way. We need help to overcome the negative state we are in, and maybe only God can do that. Some religious views give detailed accounts of how this all works (e.g. Christianity’s treatment of Jesus’ death as the way to buy human beings back from being captured by the evil in our own hearts and providing a way to be reunited with God in perfect relationship as originally intended).

These sorts of views are sometimes called atonement, but different people mean very different things by that. In terms of the problem of evil, the main point is that God is very displeased with how things turned out, is longing for people to return to the way things ought to be, and has a plan for how that can best be achieved, a plan that requires certain things to happen in certain ways. Those with a higher view of human nature might still accept something like this. They just have less of a sense that we deserve what happens to us. God might still be anguished over humanity’s rejection of all that is good and want to do something about it. God might still want to restore the good relations among humans and between humans and God. The Hebrew concept of shalom is more than just peace in the sense of absence of hostilities. It includes the idea of wholeness and wellbeing. For relationships to have shalom, maybe atonement of some sort is required.

Peter van Inwagen suggests that a plan for God to reverse the effects of the fall might take a long time. People might take awhile to be convinced of how bad evil is and why not to engage in it. We develop habits that become hard to overcome, and evil structures in society form that people might not even intentionally be perpetuating. Perhaps language and conceptual systems would need to develop fully enough for people to understand this plan, and then there would need to be enough time to allow for enough people to respond to it. For instance, God might want a sufficiently large group of people seeking to follow the proper path before the next phase of the plan can come in (and some have even suggested maybe the whole world needs to turn to God first if the ultimate goal is that all will be restored). People might need to see the depths of evil before realizing how much we do not want such a world. People might need to see how widespread it is before admitting that it affects all of us. People might need to see lots of examples repeating themselves before admitting that it’s a crucial element of the human condition that we cannot avoid simply by trying to be good without turning to God for help.

In the next post, I'll look at a problem with vagueness that comes up in some of these questions, and then I'll move on to question E in the final problem of evil post.

6 Comments

On "why does this (evil) have to go on so long": what is interesting about this line is that although it seems to have no logical force to it (if evil could rightly be allowed to go on for some period of time, then why not some morginally longer period of time), it is a question which comes up over and over again in the scriptures.

One of the nice insights I picked up from reading Tom Wright is that in Jewish thought the continuance of evil was generally related to the question of God's forgiveness, or lack thereof. The evil days were a consequence of sin and it was assumed that when God chose to forgive those sins that a right order in the world would be a natural consequence.

This background seems to shed a lot of light on many of the stories in the gospel accounts, particularly the expectation by Israelites (including the disciples) that if and when God sent His messiah, that would mean the end of Roman occupation.

Paul, the first issue you raise is the vagueness problem that the next post will take up.

Again, great series of posts, Jeremy.

I’ve always thought the greater evidential weight is not due to evil per se, but is due to the suffering of the innocent (whatever the cause). Looking at how you addressed this, and leaving aside the “demon” idea from the response to ‘A’ and the atonement discussion from the response to ‘D’, we are left with what I view as the best argument (also from the ‘A’ section): that a world with our natural laws, with all its difficulties, is the sort of world which offers the greatest possibility for good. I think this may be an adequate response, with one caveat. It seems to contradict the idea that God has ever or would ever discontinuously intervene in the affairs of the world.

It seems to contradict the idea that God has ever or would ever discontinuously intervene in the affairs of the world.

I'm not sure what you mean by this, but I should state for the record that I don't think God's intervention in the affairs of the world is discontinuous. Absolute divine sovereignty allows for distinctions between different ways things fall under God's sovereignty (e.g. miracles that go against the normal laws of nature vs. God's working through means that involve having set up the laws of nature to achiever a certain result). What it doesn't allow is treating some events as outside the realm of God's sovereignty, as Peter van Inwagen suggests in the paper I cite at the outset of this series. If that's what you mean by God discontinuously intervening, then I'd have no problem not affirming that.

You made the comment that God is very displeased with how things turned out. But how can that be? And if He is, who is he displeased with? He is the one who created everything. Did he not expect it to go this way? To say that God is displeased is to say that events have happened that God did not want or foresee. If God had wanted them, then He would not be displeased with them. If God did foresee them, then how could He have expected anything different. Again, though, both of these conclusions put limitations on God.

Something can be within God's will in terms of God desiring it to be that way in that part of the overall providential plan of all time, all the while being a way that God would not want it to be in terms of the ideal state that God intends for eternity. In that sense, God is very displeased with it and doesn't want it to stay this way, even though overall God's allowance of it is based on God's willingness to allow it to be this way for a time because of whatever purposes leave God wanting to allow it to be this way at a time.

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